The Times Literary Supplement 16 November 2001


The Times Literary Supplement 16 November 2001

The pull of the river

Steven Matthews

Robert Adamson
Mulberry Leaves: New and selected poems 1970-2001
328pp. New South Wales: Paper Bark Press.
Paperback, Aus$32.95

The Australian Robert Adamson is a writer who has always thrived on what, to echo the title of one of the poems in Mulberry Leaves, he calls "the details necessary" to render exactly incident, experience and even revelation. For all of the bravura with which he has embraced a radically self-conscious style of writing, one with clear and meticulous reference to American Black Mountain forebears, and for all the sometimes Shelleyan "romanticism" of Adamson's pose, he remains an essentially Blakean writer. The "good" which his poetry seeks to achieve arises from his scrupulous attention to the minute particulars of the world, an attention which is alert to the false glamour both of the world's allurements and of poetry.

"Where does the parrot end and the poem / start?" asks the mockingly glum speaker of one typically inscrutable lyric, "Parrot Poem". But the pace immediately picks up with the self-injunction to "Drop the philology, / take this chance / to write directly from emotion". The parrot then "glides between eye and brain, / a sentiment arising / through your skin", in flight that is wryly "hereby recorded". Yet the somewhat ponderous and faux-scholarly tone of this makes a point essential to all of Adamson's work. The rhapsodic celebration of direct experience (those Canticles on the Skin alluded to in the title of the earliest collection represented here) is only admitted, once the surfaces, borders and barriers between self and world have been registered and included in the poems' own designs.

Rather than limiting the range of possibilities for poetry, however, this attentiveness expands them. Having risen to prominence in the 1970s as the self-educated veteran of juvenile offenders' and corrective institutions, Adamson early on deployed his intimate awareness of the dreadful disadvantages, and contrary "advantages" of incarceration ("If I was in solitary I could dream – a fashionable bore, / writing books on drugs, birds, or revolution"). But reading the poems selected here is to experience a thrilling variety of subsequent stylistic experiments. The urge signalled in the title of the 1977 collection, Cross the Border, is emblematic of these shifts. Much of the more recent work offers a continuing and plangent "Lovesong from across the border" where, "Driven in fear, driven in love", "the lawless music I make / clears the air". And Adamson's love song is clearly not only a hymn to the metaphorical delights of relationships ("writing / on your arms, this scrawl scrolling / through you"). It is also a paean to the reaches of the Hawkesbury River, where the poet as a child was taken from the family house in Sydney by his paternal grandfather, and where he now has a home.

The Hawkesbury provides the complex ground bass for the processing of experience in his work of the past twenty years. It is both to appropriate the title of another poem a "landscape for love" in which Adarnson constantly fishes, and also a marker of the final distance between the poet and the seeming abundance of his world, a register of his wariness and of the unreliabilities of his medium in expressing "experience". The river, far from always yielding to his claims on it, also confirms his solitude. In the deceptively simple poem in the 1979 collection Where I Come From, he notes how "me and Sandy hated it. . . / the river with its savage tides". Adamson's sense of isolation elsewhere defines the resonances he seeks to discover in his particular poetry of experience. "Clear Water Reckoning" rejects the spiritually distressed confessionalism of some recent writing, acknowledging that "Outside the river pulls me back, / shafts of light disintegrate into clues, / flecked symbols shine with order" and "anything is possible here".

Robert Adamson is a poet who delights in pleasure found against the odds: one for whom,, as in the poem "Elizabeth Bishop in Tasmania", "there's a kissing of flesh / on flesh as the eyes dim and the blackbirds sing".